Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle

Mississippi kites are common summer residents in southwest Oklahoma and are this week’s featured creature.

With long, pointed wings, the Mississippi kite appears falcon-like while in flight. They are exceptional aerialists, which greatly helps them catch their prey.

With various shades of gray along with red eyes, to me they are one of our most beautiful raptors.

And the good news for this species is, their population in the United States is expanding. Bird experts believe it is due in part to the creation of shelter belts planted by farmers and ranchers.

Mississippi kites breed in the United States and spend the winter way down in South America.

Appearance

Mississippi kites appear larger than they actually are. At about 14.5 inches long, they are a little smaller than American crows but larger than pigeons.

Adults are pale gray below and dark gray on their backs and the backs of their wings. Their necks and heads are often the lightest of grays.

While in flight, when viewed from below, the outer halves of their wings are often dark and get blacker toward the tips. Also, the tails are very dark.

Juveniles are heavily streaked with brown on their breasts and bellies and have bands on the tails.

They have wingspans of up to three feet.

Range

The breeding range of the Mississippi kite is dotted over many states in the southern United States. However, the largest range covers the western three-quarters of Oklahoma, northwest Texas and the Texas Panhandle, and much of the southern half of Kansas. In fact, there are many more Mississippi kites in Oklahoma than there are in Mississippi. Perhaps it should be called the Oklahoma kite?

Habitat

It’s funny, but Mississippi kites in different areas of the country have different behaviors and different habitats. From my own personal experience, kites in Oklahoma can be found in semi-open habitat, pastures, suburbs, overgrown fields and parks. I’ve seen hundreds in and around the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge during the breeding season.

Food

The majority of their diet consists of large insects. Mississippi kites are very agile on the wing and can hawk insects such as cicadas and dragonflies right out of the air. Other insects include grasshoppers, katydids, beetles, moths and other insects. Kites will also eat small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Nesting

Mississippi kites nest in trees, and both male and females build the nest. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the female will lay one to three eggs. Incubation lasts a little more than a month. Fledglings will leave the nest after about one month.

Sadly, many raptor nestlings are not kind to each other. These sibling rivalries can even end in the death of a fledgling. However, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that Mississippi kite nestlings preen each other, arrange nesting material together and show very little aggression toward each other.

A word of caution: Mississippi kites can be quite aggressive if someone ventures too close to a nest. They will often dive at the intruder; however, they rarely make contact. Still, though, it can be quite scary when one of these birds dives at you flying 100 miles per hour.

Odds and ends

• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that smaller bird species — such as blue jays, northern mockingbirds and house sparrows — may nest near or on kite nests, usually coexisting peacefully with the kites. Very interesting.

 

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

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